Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday expressed strong disapproval of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's description of the U.S.-led war in Iraq as illegal, saying the comment was "not a very useful statement to make at this point."
"What does it gain anyone? We should all be gathering around the idea of helping the Iraqis, not getting into these kinds of side issues," Mr. Powell said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.
"I'm sure I will have the opportunity to talk to Kofi about this," Mr. Powell added.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Powell said the United States was determined to improve the security situation in time for national elections in Iraq; pledged to keep international attention focused on the humanitarian crisis in Sudan; and lamented the unwillingness of many in the Muslim and Arab world to take on Islamic extremists in their midst.
Mr. Annan's comments, made in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. over the weekend, startled and angered governments in the U.S.-led coalition that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein last year.
The U.N. chief had made no secret of his belief the United States and its allies should have sought an explicit Security Council resolution authorizing the war.
But he went much further in the BBC interview, saying, "From our point of view, from the [U.N. Charter] point of view, it was illegal."
Mr. Powell said the Constitution gives the United States the right to act in its own self-defense without U.N. approval, but argued that the Iraq war itself was justified by Saddam's "material breach" of a string of earlier U.N. resolutions on his weapons programs.
"What we did was totally consistent with international law," he insisted.
Officials in Britain, Australia, Bulgaria and Poland yesterday joined Mr. Powell in rejecting Mr. Annan's argument. Many allies would face severe political difficulties at home if the war was seen as lacking U.N. sanction.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard, in a tight re-election race in which his support for the Iraq war is a crucial issue, said in a radio interview, "The legal advice that we had, and I tabled it at the time, was that the action was entirely valid in international law terms."
In the interview, Mr. Powell said U.S. diplomats and military commanders recognize that proposed national elections in Iraq set for the end of this year or early 2005 cannot proceed under the current security conditions. Insurgents and terrorists enjoy functional control of a number of Iraqi cities in the restive Sunni heartland, and U.S. and Iraqi government forces face constant attacks.
But he predicted the security situation would improve, and that the U.S. presidential campaign would not stop U.S. and Iraqi government forces from acting forcefully.
"We don't expect the security situation as it exists now on the 16th of September to be the security situation" on the day Iraqis vote, Mr. Powell said.
"We know and [Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi] knows that these areas have to be brought back firmly under government control," he added.
Mr. Powell also played down a classified U.S. intelligence estimate this summer that offered a sometimes bleak assessment of the state of security in Iraq today. In the worst-case scenario, the report warns of a civil war in Iraq by the end of next year.
The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry seized on leaked accounts of the intelligence estimate yesterday, saying it belied President Bush's optimistic comments on Iraq's future. …